Monday, March 9, 2015

STAINED

Dark sepia patterns dance across my palms and the back of my hands. The form on my right arm creeps up towards my elbow and slowly fades away, while that on the left is truncated just above the wrist. Though I have washed my hands again and again, the pattern persists. My hands are stained. Mehendi they call it.

My friend and “co-worker” is responsible for creating the patterns. She spent her lunch break painting my hands with a dark, thin paste as a farewell gift. I’m not sure she intended it this way, but I think of her and those I worked with when I catch a glimpse of my hands. The stains will last a number of days, but my hands will soon fade back to their familiar ghostly pallor.

Like my hands, my head and my heart have also been stained. They are not stained by a plant-based paste but by the events, characters, and experiences that colored the last two weeks of life for me. Many of my experiences I have shared here on this blog while others have intentionally been left out for various and sundry reasons. {For example, my family might not let me return if they knew all the details… ;)} But every person I met, became reacquainted with, got to know better, and just “did life” with in India has left a unique pattern of their own on my heart and mind.

Unlike the patterns on my hands, the stains inside are not likely to fade so fast. Those stains created by my 2013 trip have yet to disappear; I anticipate the stains of the 2015 trip to remain strong for a while as well. Right now, as I sit here in Tacoma, they make their presence known by a bizarre mix of joy, gratitude, humility, pain, and restlessness. Without warning they release the damn of unstable emotions and tears spill from my eyes; tears that I do not understand.

On the other side of my two week trip to India I still do not know exactly why I went. I had hoped that I would have some sort of answer to this question. I know that I still have a mystifying love for India and a craving to experience more of it and more of the people who have become so dear to me. And I still reach deep into my faith and grasp firm unto the knowledge that my God will make it clear to me some day. As for today today, I am forced to intermittently fight back a random flood of tears and keeping going forward. I will go back to Spokane today and attempt to resume my typical everyday life. I will go back to work tomorrow and strive to do my best with every patient and coworker I encounter. I will go with my God… and I will go forever stained by India.  

“…walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8

“…’for I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord…” Jeremiah 29:11


A SMATTERING OF MY STAINS:












THE MAKING OF MY BREAKFAST

One of my favorite parts of the daily routine at rehab is stopping at 10 am for breakfast. I don’t know what about it I like. Perhaps it is the chance to fill my empty stomach, or maybe it is the chance to join in the comradery of staff who have all taken a pause to break fast. Whatever it is holds a certain charm for me.

This is how it goes. Approach cashier and order meal; for me, that would typically be one plain dosa and a double tea. Hand over currency and wait for change and your meal tokens, noting that you might get change in chewy candies—don’t be alarmed— this is the status quo. The meal tokens alert the chefs of what you ordered. The blue token is plan dosa (for what I could tell), and the lime green tokens are for hot beverages. With tokens in hand approach the kitchen and re-place your order, then marvel at the technique in which the food is prepared. Once completed, the chef motions you to lift your dish so he can plate your meal. Proceed to the small kitchen for your chutney de-jour and sambar. Find a place to sit, and begin enjoying. 

Prepping the griddle for dosa making
My dosa
My barista
The canteen from a far
Friends at morning break

Sunday, March 8, 2015

FROM PATIENT ZERO TO PATIENT HERO

I write this post with the utmost respect and high regard for my Patient Zero. He has helped sculpt me as a therapist (and individual) in ways I cannot express. I believe he has helped me more than I ever imagined I could help him. His new adventures in life give me cause for great joy and I could not be more proud of his accomplishments. Patient Zero became the poster child for my first trip to CMC. My experiences in rehab with him only added fuel to the fire of desire to return to CMC. You might say he is a large part of the reason I returned.

I knew he wouldn't be there this time. I knew he was a one-of-a-kind and there wasn't likely to be anyone like him in rehab when I returned. I was right—rehab was lacking a certain “Patient Zero” atmosphere. And then I met my Patient Hero.

He doesn't know I call him Patient Hero; mainly because we don’t speak the same language. Our verbal communications are severely limited by our linguistic heritages. He speaks only Hindi. I clearly don’t. I was introduced to him when I initially expressed interest in working with patients in rehab with tetraplegia (formally known as quadriplegia). He was the young, thin kid (21 years of age) sitting on the mat table with his faithful father squatting behind him with protective hands ready to catch him if he lost his balance. One look at his hands told me he had a C6-7 injury. One look at his face told me he had heart and a nearly supernatural determination. He also had my full attention.

Throughout my duty in rehab he proved to me time and time again that that initial spark of determination was not simply a rare moment, but his modus operandi. He had been working on hand function and tall-sitting balance in occupational therapy before I took over. As a therapist groomed towards increasing functional independence, I needed to see him engage in functional activities. In a series of comical charades and hilarious attempts to speak Tamil, or Spanish, or anything-but-English, I managed to ask his father to go get an extra shirt. With tremendous instability, a few cues from me, and a number of minutes later, Patient Hero managed to don his own shirt. By himself. For the first time in months. I won’t readily forget the look in his face as his shy, driven demeanor briefly gave way to pride and sheer joy. (Golly, I love my job!) 

From that moment on, Patient Hero rose to every challenge I gave him. Every day his determination to do each task independently gained new heights. Patient Hero’s tenacity challenged even my patience. Occasionally I would give him a task that went beyond his abilities just so I could see what he would and could do. And occasionally I would miss the “just right challenge” mark and he would struggle unmercifully; however, he refused to let me adjust the task or move on to something else. With a shy smile and shake of the head he would motion me to return to the task I had initially given him and he would carry on. His frustration never seemed to give way to surrender.

His background is different from Patient Zero. Due to socioeconomic status he will not receive his wheelchair for another week or so, but that does not prevent him from showing up and pressing on. Unlike Patient Zero, he spent nearly six months at home prior to coming to CMC, and he arrived with condition called heterotrophic ossification which severely limits his hip range of motion. This limitation created a challenge for me as I began to problem-solve ways for him to progress towards independence with lower body dressing. Despite the difficulty, he stepped up to the plate and gave it his all.

He challenged me in ways I didn't expect. He taught me lessons I didn't see coming. He showed me that strong rapport can be built across the chasm of limited verbal communication. His story broke my heart while his small successes rising from his tremendous willpower provided an unexpected balm to heal the broken pieces. This time it was Patient Hero who made it hard for me to leave, and it is Patient Hero who inspires me to return again. I know he likely won’t be at rehab when I return, but his impact on my life has left a mark I cannot ignore. He was my hero. He is my hero.


**Photo consent obtained from patients prior to use**



Saturday, March 7, 2015

CAPSIZING THE BOAT

***Not posted in real-time due to internet connections in international airports.**

Growing up, my family spent a week every summer at Lake Quinault. The mental file labeled “Lake Memories” is thick and chock full of the kind of stories that magical childhood summers are made of. It was at The Lake that my dad taught me how to sail. My grandfather owned a small (very small) single-hull dinghy that made sailing fairly easy to pick up. That dinghy is the source of one of my more intense Lake memories. It was the day my dad spontaneously taught me about capsize recovery (much to both of our surprise!)

It was late afternoon, the time of day for the best sailing winds. Not a cloud in the sky. My dad was skipper as we pulled away from the dock, but after a brief refresher course he turned the helm over to me. It was smooth sailing. The only sound was the occasional luff of the sails when I failed to trim them right. We were headed into a cove just upwind from our lodging and I knew that if I didn't “come about” soon, we would lose our wind in the protection of the cove. I called out the order and my dad jumped to post with the jib rigging as he responded to my call with a “Ready now!” When the main sail caught the change in wind, the boom swung around and trapped my dad on the down-wind side of the sail. Typically he would have sneaked under the boom, but what neither of us realized was that the boom was running lower than usual due to the fact that the mail sail had not been pulled to the top of the mast. Between his entrapment and the main sail catching wind, our little dinghy started taking on water. In less than a minute, Dad and I were lying prone across the bottom side of our boat, me gasping in shock and bewilderment. We were able to right the boat, but failed to get her to sail again, drifting conveniently back to our dock with the prevailing winds. We were lucky, and I was the brunt of a series of sailing jokes for years to come. I maintain that since no permanent damage was done and all parties involved arrived on land without injury, the whole incident has actually made me a more proficient sailor.

Unlike the skippers who manage to keep their vessel upright, I have had the experience of unexpectedly capsizing a boat. In the event that I should ever again be on a capsizing boat, I know what to do and know how to manage the undesirable situation while remaining calm. (Trust me; you want me as a captain! Hahaha!) Tonight I capsized my boat.

No, I’m not sailing home from India. (Though, now that you mention it that might be my next adventure… Dad, you game?) I am flying home. Actually, I SHOULD be flying right now, but I’m not. I’m sitting in the Chennai airport waiting for my flight, my new flight, to start boarding. Yes. I missed my flight.

We left Chennai by taxi in what should have been enough time to make it to the airport and to my gate. However, we seemed to hit traffic at every turn. It felt like the last four kilometers to the airport took just as much time to travel as the first 120 (or so). While I was sitting in traffic, the Emirates ticket counter was closing its doors. I arrived still hopeful that I could somehow make it through all check points and to my flight; however, when the porter at the door told me the counter was closed I knew my boat had capsized.

I have never missed a flight before. I wasn't sure what protocol would be here in India. I was ushered to the customer service office and was given a help line to call. The problem was I no longer had a phone that would make a call from India. Those at the service office must have felt my distress and told me someone would be by to help me shortly. Within five minutes the phone had been dialed for me and I was talking to a cordial man about my predicament. He confirmed my original booking details and politely passed my case to his colleague. Many “hold please” and a few questions later I was told that for a small fee of $600 USD I would be booked on the same flight 24 hours later. Not my first choice. At all. I was finding it hard to right my boat. I asked the kind lady if there was any way I could fly out on the 0330 flight that left in a few hours and still make my connection flight in Dubai. She told me it didn't look good as the flight was full, but I could try if I called back in a few hours. She also warned me that the flight she offered me might not be available. I took my chances. After collecting my bags, I ushered myself and the knot in my stomach out to the general waiting area to pray out the next hour. I prayed with some kind of fervor, let me tell you.

With a sense of peace slowly settling on me, I tried to distract myself with some reading. My mind was not able to focus on the words on the pages, but instead images of lying prone on the bottom of a capsized boat flashed to mind. I was at least safe and floating. My boat was still up-side-down, but the shock of the capsize was waning. I knew that I would make it home… eventually… and that I would be a more seasoned international traveler as a result of this experience.

An hour later I approached the customer service office again and cautiously knocked on the door asking if I could again try to get on the 0330 flight to Dubai. The man who responded to my plea told me he would do what he could to get me on the flight and that I should have a seat next to him. He began typing away in what looked like MS-DOS format; jibberish to me as I tried to figure out if I was going to make it on the flight. Soon he turned to me and said, “Go out and sit, then check in at 1130. I will do what I can. It might take a while.” I resumed my post in the general waiting area with the sense that he was helping me right my vessel. An hour later I again approached the office and he waved me off to go check in. Wait. What? I was told the flight was full. Did I get on? He confirmed that he had gotten me on the flight and mysteriously the $600 fee was not mentioned or charged. I would indeed make my connection flight in Dubai. If it would have been culturally appropriate I would have hugged the man, shoot dang! I could have even kissed his cheek! However, his stoic demeanor broke into a smile only for a second when I began to variously shake his hand and thank him—thank him for helping me complete a successful capsize recovery. I can now say I have missed an international flight, survived to tell the story, and claim to be all the more experienced for having gone through it. 


As I sit here by my gate, continuously thanking my Lord for answered prayers, I find the irony in missing my flight home. After all, I didn't really want to leave India. Alas and alack, I am sailing home… And if any of you should be leery of international travel, take me with you; I can lend my experience should you miss your flight home. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

EARNING MY STREET CRED'

I’m getting bolder in my culinary adventures. (Indian cheesecake anyone? Hahaha!) Those I typically eat with tend to order food for me so that I can try new things, or they will prevent me from eating something they do not think will suit me well. The later can sometimes be frustrating, but I take it as a display of kindness and their caring nature.

Last night I was cautiously presented with a new opportunity to take it a step further: street food. Not only was it street food, but it was street food that allegedly can topple the native Indian’s digestive system. Yes, we went right for the big guns. Meha, Kriti and I had planned to wander Gandhi Road in search of gifts and running errands as well as experiencing “true India.” As we checked each thing off the list, Meha grew more and more excited about THE ITEM: "Introduce Emily to pani puri." This was the item on the list that would have been circled, underlined, bolded and maybe even clouded for good measure.

Both girls were excitedly dubious about this task, as they knew the risks and voiced their concern if I fell ill. In the end they decided I would be allowed to enjoy one (and only one) pani puri from the street vendor and would then have to experience more from a “hygienic” establishment. You see, the street vendor serves a morsel that no hygienic place can match. I NEEDED to have a street pani puri.

Looking back on this, I feel it was cruel. Not because they were knowingly risking my well-being, but because they only allowed me to eat one, solitary street pani puri. It was worth the hype that Meha and Kriti gave it. Later that evening, I was able to satiate my craving for more with a stop a “hygienic” restaurant for more traditional Northern Indian foods including: pav bhaji and chana samosa.

The photos will provide more details, but I will try to describe the pani puri. Each bite is about the size of a cream puff and serves as the “vehicle” for an epic potatoe and chickpea filling. The “puff” is made of thin, crispy pastry-like bread and is broken open with the thumb to receive a scoop of the filling. Then the whole thing is dipped into a broth (which is where the “unhygienic” part comes in) that is tart, salty, and wholesome. After it is dipped, the entire pani puri is to be placed in the mouth and consumed; a greater challenge then you think. The taste is mildly salty and reminiscent of limes and cilantro. The texture is simultaneously crunchy, soft, and creamy. It is a little explosion of culinary delight pocketed in a small little puff of magic. That is all. And I survived the street food; all the better for trying it as well. 

Gandhi Road 

Meha getting ready for pani puri

Pani puri: street style

Oh the joy!!

One to scare the children

Oh the magic!!

Meha and Kriti

Pani puri: "hygienic" style

Pav bhaji

Chana samosas

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

IF I'M ALICE, THIS WOULD BE MY WONDERLAND

I often find myself in the middle of an experience and never really quite sure how I got there. Charlie would probably tell you it is because I have a significant inability to say “no” to any adventure presented to me here in India. With caution thrown to the wind (within reason), I will generally jump at the chance to see a new part of town, try a new food, or engage in a novel experience. Sunday afternoon was no different.

The opportunity to travel across town to have traditional food from Kerala was presented to me. So I took it. Unfortunately we chose the wrong day to try out the restaurant as more than half of their traditional Keralan dishes were not being served. However, we ordered a few fish dishes and enjoyed what was served regardless. The food was very good, but nothing to really write home about… so I won’t.

My guide, The Lone Cowboy, was not impressed with the food and was not about to waste a trip across town so he decided we would make our way to Tom’s Diner for cheesecake. I have to admit. I was a little dubious. This sounded like a game plan for a failed dinner attempt in my hometown. Tom’s Diner? Cheesecake? Really? Am I not in southern India? I was curious and, of course, agreeable to the plan.

Now The Lone Cowboy is not exactly a typical Indian. In fact, he is often confused for an American or foreigner and will sometimes shock locals when he responds to them in fluent Tamil. He has travel a few times to the USA (with specific ties to Texas) and even spent some of his childhood on the east coast (of USA). His English is fluent and stained with an unidentifiable, revolving accent—sometimes it is clearly Indian, other times it sounds British or… I can’t really tell. He doesn't seem to belong to any one place or people. He just is. And he likes cheesecake.

As my eyes adjusted to the lighting after walking into Tom’s Diner I began to see a plethora of three very familiar colors: red, white, and blue. Yes, the American flag had been the chosen motif for decoration at Tom’s Diner. Not only did my country’s flag have a dominate presence, but pennants of popular baseball stars, including Seattle’s own Ken Griffey, Jr., hung from the walls. Underlying the glass table tops were postcards from American cities and baseball cards from yesteryear. Signs of home were all around me and yet it all felt so foreign to me. And then a piece of strawberry cheesecake was slid onto the table. It looked like cheesecake. It felt like cheesecake when I cut into it. It tasted like cheesecake. Now I’m not a great cook, but I was always under the impression that cheesecake was called cheesecake because the key ingredient was cream cheese. Puzzled by how much this dessert tasted like cheesecake, I asked The Lone Cowboy if cream cheese was readily available in India (I hadn't ever seen it in the store or in any other dish). He shook his head “no” and took another bite. If that is the case than that cheesecake must have cost a small fortune or Tom’s Diner had succeeded in making a cream cheese-less cheesecake. Does make you wonder, doesn't it?


So there I was, sitting in a little American nook, eating a puzzling dessert with an ambiguous guide in the middle of southern India. Everything felt in a state of strange limbo— nothing was here, nothing was there. Everything was out of place. I was out of place; out of place and yet comfortable. This has become my new normal here; never truly fitting in (I’m white and can’t understand the local language, after all), but very comfortable with being just who I am in the current place and adventure.
  
“I'm not strange, weird, off, nor crazy; my reality is just different from yours.” – Alice, from Alice in Wonderland. 

HUNDREDS

Meha sent me a message around mid-morning on Sunday to write her name on my dance card for the evening. She and Kriti had plans to take me back to Hundreds. Hundreds is a restaurant on the north side of town, fairly close to Katpadi Railway Station (NOT “train station,” according to Sunil…) that it is considered to be a “proper” restaurant—a place you go to celebrate; or in our case, a place you go to eat when you want to dress up nicely and get out on the town; which is exactly what we did. (Side note: as evidence of the late night eating schedule of many here in South India, the restaurant doesn't even open until 7pm, and that is considered an early dinner.)

We met at Meha and Kriti’s and set out for the north side of town. I was fairly bushed from my sun rise trek, two sessions of swimming, and a previous trip north for lunch; not to mention the effects of the humidity and heat. All that aside, I was looking forward to a return to Hundreds. The last time I was there was with my Patient Zero, Charlie, Meha, and the grandparents. It was a grand outing and as we pulled up to the restaurant, all the memories of two years ago came trickling back into my mind.

Due to the “late” opening of Hundreds we had a bit of time to kill before dinner, so we stopped at a proper jewelry shop where I could carry on yet another tradition: adding an anklet (or pile) to my left ankle. Sometime during my last trip I decided to secure a simple anklet to my left ankle to remind me of my experiences and the life lessons learn in my trip to India (as if I really have trouble remembering…). My first anklet was purchased in the Mysore spice market with Charlie who has the matching anklet. (Traditionally they are worn on both ankles; however, I’m not exactly what you would call “traditional.”) This time my anklet was purchased in a “proper” jewelry shop and Meha has the matching anklet. Sometimes I wonder how long the anklets will last and also how many will I end up collecting?

Anyhow, back to the story. By the time we arrived at Hundreds, I was fairly parched so I convinced Meha to join me in raising a glass of mint lime juice-- incredibly refreshing and so hard to sip and savor vs. chug! Meha and Kriti, as has become their role, took over the meal ordering, stopping only occasionally to ask me if I had ever had (fill in the blank), or would I like to try (fill in the blank). Watching the two of them get excited about the menu was much more fun than pouring over it myself anyhow. Eventually they settled on a few dishes (which I forgot to get the names of) and our conversation turned to table games and entertainment, which inevitably led to a quick game of table charades while eagerly passing the time until the food arrived.

Dinner did not disappoint. We inhaled it quickly and with little hesitation and skipped on to the dessert menu. If you know me at all, you know that I have a personal rule: never go to a fancy restaurant without ordering dessert. It is sacrilege if you do! (Can I get an “Amen”?) Meha was resolved not to eat dessert as she had her fill of dessert; however, Kriti and I knew the way to her heart and ordering the sizzling brownie. Like a magicians grand finale we made that thing disappear before the smoke settled (literally… it comes out “smoking”).

Happily filled with food and fellowship, we settled our bill and then made our way outside to flag down an auto. Meha and Kriti were either unsure of my ability to make my way back home, or they lacked confidence in the auto driver’s ability to understand me, so they escorted me back to my lane before heading off to their our home. As I walked the last little stretch to my home, I looked back of the day with gratitude for the abundance of friends who welcomed me into their lives and treated me like one of their friends. Another evening of memories made at Hundreds: check! 

** I apologize for the quality of photos. The lighting at Hundreds is incredibly poor and scattered making it a challenge for this amateur photographer to get a good shot of anything!**

Kriti and Meha planning out our dinner.

Sweet Kriti.

Spunky Meha (Can you not see the delightful mischief in her eyes?)

Dinner-time selfie!

Dinner... this was a mushroom dish. It was amazing!

Our Sizzling Brownie!